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Henry Thornton - Contributors: A discussion of economic, social and political issues Blogs
China overheating; taking Australia with it.
Date: Friday, January 21, 2011
Author: Henry Thornton

CHINA'S GDP jumped nearly 10 per cent in the fourth quarter despite tightening measures by Beijing, and inflation declined in December.


Moderating food prices contributed to lower inflation, but this provides little comfort as the overall economy is proving hard to slow to a non-inflationary rate.


'China's GDP expanded by 9.8 per cent in the fourth quarter from a year earlier, up from 9.6 per cent growth in the third quarter, the National Bureau of Statistics said today.


'Growth was significantly above market expectations of a 9.2 per cent rise, according to the median forecast of 13 economists polled earlier.


“There clearly has been no hard landing for the Chinese economy,” said UBS economist Wang Tao. The faster than expected growth was partly due to strong exports in the fourth quarter, she said.


In related coverage, Michael Sainsbury writes of 'Fears of overheating as China's runaway growth defies efforts to slow it down'.


Commodities boom.


'COMMODITIES are partying like it is 2008' says The Economist. 'The oil price stands at its highest since October of that year, just shy of $100 per barrel. World food prices—as measured by The Economist’s index—are back at their peak of July 2008. Copper prices, which have jumped by 17% since the start of November, are at an all-time high. The recent gains reflect reduced concern about global economic prospects, helped along by the Federal Reserve, which announced a second dose of quantitative easing in November last year.


'The worry is that rampant commodity prices may cause another wobble in the world economy. Higher commodity prices act like a consumption tax, transferring income from households and companies which use the resources to companies and countries that produce them. As the producers tend to save more of their income than the consumers, more expensive commodities bear down on global demand'.


Australian economy: Wages pressure building.


'THE newly renovated Perth airport is already straining at the seams, overwhelmed by the numbers needing to get to the resources projects of the north west.


'In total, the fly-in, fly-out workforce adds up to 2 million passenger movements a year. That's even though more than a quarter of the workers now bypass Perth when they come from other states.


'That sort of massive shortage of workers for the resources sector, including the myriad of mining services and supply companies, is only going to increase in Western Australia this year.


'Every small shop owner trying to find staff in Perth knows the result. They can't compete with the money on offer. The West Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry expects the state's average weekly wages growth to be up over 7 per cent a year for the next few years. And that may prove an underestimate. The chamber's latest survey of business conducted last month has found that 40 per cent of its members don't expect to be able to find sufficient staff by March'.


Australia felix.


China's overly strong economy is boosting australia's wealth.


Here is the rub: the australian economy is close to full employment right now. Resource investment has not yet reached the heights it is bound to do, and there is massive repaIir and reconstruction to come thanks to the massive Eastern Australia floods.


sadly it seems that the Reserve Bank is again playing catch-up, and we must conclude 'too little, too late' is somehow hard-wired into the system.  The floods are not, of course something that anyone could be expected to predict or to anticipate by tightening monetary and fiscal policy ahead of the fact.


But when the post-mortem's are produced, the coming inflationary storm will raise deep questions about global monetary policy.


Henry's forthcoming book - Great Crises of Capitalism - offers some modest suggestions. 




Economic reform, not rate cuts
Date: Tuesday, February 03, 2015
Author: Henry Thornton

Everyone involved in the debate about Australian economic policy is hyperventilating about what the RBA will do next. With every other country with zero or near zero cash rates, and all central banks of note but the US Fed still buying bonds as part of the con job called 'quantitative easing', Glenn Stevens is being urged by some to cut local interest rates further.  The most defensible argument concerns alleged 'global deflation'.


Cutting rates here so far has been primarily because the economy was headed for bad times, a matter warned about here, for example.  There was also a belief that lower rates would help achieve a necessary faster fall in a clearly over-valued Aussie dollar.  But, as Glenn Stevens knows well, there are limits to what monetary policy can do.  In my view, Australia's economy is in deep trouble, but the RBA has been generally cheery about the immediate future. The Aussie dollar has fallen most of the way to US$0.75 and there are days when it seems likely to take a Swan dive.


Thus, unless the RBA has joined the 'serious trouble' camp, its own stated position does not call for further rate cuts.  Forecasts are for moderate income growth, gradually improving, Australia riding out the current 'income recession' caused by falling commodity prices as resources shift from mining to (for example) making coffees for hoardes of tourists.


Those ecpnomic commentators who are not totally focussed on monetary policy know what is needed:
* The budget needs to be fixed - and the knightood bestowed on Prince Philip is a negative item on that front as it givess recalcitrant Senators an excuse not to support budget reform.
Australia's major cost disequilibrium needs to be overcome - and in the absence of Bob Hawke's gentle art of persuasion, this will only happen, and then gradually, by further falls in the Aussie dollar not compensated for by increases in wages and prices.  Further rate cuts will encourage wage and price hikes and work against the necessary correction.
* Economic reform, to boost Australia's productivity and international competitiveness, is required. Such action is also the major policy change required in the Eurozone, Japan, even the UK, where central banks are still using monetary policy in lieu of economic reform in futile attempts to restart the economic engines.


This 'Welcome to Country' for the new Secretary of Treasury provides a fair number of specific reforms for consideration, and the current discussion about reducing penalty rates for working on weekends and public holidays shows an appetite for economic in this vital area for creating new jobs. Yet internicene sniping evident within the government makes economic reform, always hard in any country, almost impossible.


Glenn Stevens has bravely told the government to get on with its job.  We endorse this carefully calculated advice and respecfully request the governor not to substitute unnecessay monetary easing for economic reform.


Saturday Sanity Break, 24 January 2015
Date: Saturday, January 24, 2015
Author: Henry Thornton

Happy Oz Day weekend, gentle readers. we hope it all goes swimmingly, and those who deserve Oz Day honours get their just desserts.


Mario Draghi has finally found the courage to buy bonds with printed Euros, introducing 'Quantitative Easing' (QE) to the Eurozone.  The USA, the UK and Japan are all ahead in that game, and all for the same reason, that conventional easy money has failed to stimulate goods and labor markets. Curiously, no-one seems to acknowledge that 'QE' has massively stimulated asset markets, making owners of assets richer, while doing very little to help battlers.


The real issue for economists is to explain why very easy monetary policy has failed to stimulate goods and labor markets. In seeking to understand this issue, economists would be wise to delve into the history of English monetary policy.  In 1871, The Economist reported, fairly offhand, as follows: ‘On several occasions like the present, the Bank of England has borrowed largely on Consols – and in this way circumvented lack of market rate response to the lower discount rate'.  To me this is a description of 'QE', attributed to the grand Old Lady of global monetary policy.


Anyway, with the partial exception of the mighty USA, zero discount rates and QE seem utterly impotant.  To a simple bloke like Henry, this suggests that easy money, even very easy money, is not the core reason for sluggish goods and labor markets. Governments are like the drunk looking for his wallet under the lamp post, not because that's where he lost it, but because that's where the light is best.


The Oz reports that Tony Abbott has had his 'Banana Republic' moment, warning that Australia risks becoming a 'second rate' nation. That's a good start, but the Treasurer earlier in the new year was spreading optimism about the state of the nation.  The only way to square the circle here is that Mr Hockey is confident he can successfully fix the budget mess, and the large-scale cost disequilibrium and restore Australia's productive growth and global competitiveness. 


Henry has advised the incoming Treasury Secretary on the questions he, (and the Treasurer), should be asking. Just as 'Disunity is Death', failure to 'Ask the right questions' is a second certain way to fail, in economic management as much as anything. In effect, Australia has a mild version of the Eurozone disease, sluggish growth of goods and labor markets, and Treasury and the RBA will be (or should be) delving into history and current experience of other nations to find the answers.


In case you missed them, Mr Hockey, here are the questions and a set of implied answers.


Tennis'n'cricket'n'futball'n'stuff


Very sad to see the exit of Lleyton Hewitt and Sam Stouser from the Oz Open, but great performances by the younguns, lead by Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios, made for a cheery start to the weekend.


We think we heard that the ugly Oz cricketers beat the Poms with the second last ball of their innings, which is about as good as beating Collingwood by one point kicked after the siren due to an umpiring error.


But the highlight of the sporting week was undoubtedly the wonderful win by the Socceroos over the brave Chinese team in the quarter final of the Asian Cup of Futball.  And the goals scored by Tim Cahill were a joy to behold - here is a replay.


Kulture


Henry was awakened at 7 AM today by a discussion on Radio National with the author of what sounds like a very nice book about the state of play in Australian culture. Will try to find a link, but this bloke  - a BBC correspondant - sounded like he is onto something.  Some overlap with the fin's interview of Anna Funder, linked here. We used to cut down the tall poppies, but 'now we are cutting the cultural cringe'. (AFR P 18, no link I can find.)


Also in the fin, nice discussion of the need to take science mosr seriously, with the views of Australia's four living Nobel laureates.


American Sniper is a must see movie in what is a summer of movie excellence.  Here is a link to the trailor and additional critical comment by Grace Randolph.


Also nice review in the Fin (P 51).


Image of the week



Energy crisis; what crisis?
Date: Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Author: Henry Thornton

The press is full of 'energy crisis' stories - energy workers who will lose jobs, companies that will go broke, energy exporting nations that will suffer cuts to real incomes, the list goes on. But this reader can remember the 1970s when oil crises - limited supply, soaring prices - caused 'stagflation' - that ugly mix of inflation and severe recession.


Logically, current events, with plunging enery prices, should produce deflation, or at least restrained inflation, and economic growth stronger than if energy costs remained high.


'Seize the day', says The Economist. 'The fall in the price of oil and gas provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix bad energy policies'.


Economic policy is mostly about tinkering at the edges. Sometimes there is opportunity to do something useful. 'From Deng Xiaoping’s market opening in 1978 to Poland’s adoption of “shock therapy” in 1990, bold politicians have seized propitious circumstances to push through reforms that transformed their countries. Such a once-in-a-generation opportunity exists today'.


It's relatively simple.  'With energy prices falling, and set to fall further, it would be possible to abolish billions of dollars of distorting subsidies, especially for dirty fuels, whilst shifting taxes towards carbon use. A cheaper, greener and more reliable energy future could be within reach'.


The venerable mag's latest edition includes several reports on aspects of the state of modern energy production, conservation and pollution. One learns about matters like:


* Why the oil price is falling.


* Energy efficiency - 'using less'


* The oldish five-story house at Notting Hill that on average exports energy to the grid.


Renewables are no longer a fad but a fact of life, supercharged by advances in power storage


The theme is that the cost of renewables is falling very fast and that there are innovations galore.


The graphic is not dynamic, but even current relative costs will suprise many readers.



If you are a subscriber, do not miss the latest edition.


If you are not a subscriber, look out for the latest edition, available at news-stands in most cities of the advanced nations.



Courtesy The Economist


Welcome John Fraser
Date: Monday, January 19, 2015
Author: Henry Thornton

We are delighted to welcome someone from the real world to the Australian Treasury.  John Fraser has the bonus of being a former high Treasury official. Mr Fraser peaked at Treasury after my time as a senior RBA man, so there is no personal bond between us. But I do wish him every success, as his success with be success for all Australians.


There are three big issues that should be in Mr Fraser's file marked 'urgent and important'.


1. The budget mess
2. Australia's major cost disequilibrium
3. Low productivity and poor competitiveness.


Some Treasury Secretaries I have known would have ticked all three items on this list based on plans to have a really good recession, created or made worse by a 'horror budget'.  This is the fallback solution, and will be imposed by international market participants if we do not get it done by our own efforts. Shock treatment of that kind is, of course, no longer part of the Treasury playbook, and unlikely to appeal to a government struggling in the polls that has not developed the narrative to explain why rapid action would be better than gradually nibbling away at what are major problems.


So any attempt to fix these problems needs to be gradual.  One can imagine a gradual solution to Australia's three vital economic challenges but, writing frankly, this will at best spread the necessary adjustment over several years, even a decade.  One notices newspapers pointing out that slow growth will mean employment will not grow fast enough to prevent the rate of unemployment keeping on rising.  Last week's alleged 'good news' on jobs must largely be due to poor statistics from a cash strapped ABS, as it is not supported by feedback from the real world of people anxiously job-hunting.


Now to the arguments that one hopes are in the folder marked 'urgent and important'.


1. The budget. The Treasurer has said that there will be no more spending cuts to match falling revenues. The idea is to avoid imposing fiscal pain on households and businesses already struggling to make ends meet. This means no further attempts to balance the Federal government's books and delays the time when Australia will again deserve an AAA rating. It also shows the iron grip of Keynesian economics in Canberra.


The question to ask, Mr Fraser, is this.  Would decisive action to fix the budget, despite Keynesian fiscal tightening, help or hinder the confidence of Australian businesses and households? (Compared to the status quo of no forseeable budget repair.)


2. Cost disequilibrium. The basic Keynesian analysis still practiced in Canberra means that 'major cost disequlibrium' is not a concept readily embraced. So far as I can figure out,  cost imbalance is a concept at most recognised as a subsidiary factor when attempting to forecast the various componants of 'aggregate demand'. Yet in the real world of highly competitive markets, it is probably more relevant than hours, even days or weeks, attempting to predict the economic future by torturing the numbers of each componant of 'aggregate demand'.


Now it is true that a falling exchange rate will help restore competitiveness provided local costs do not simply increase to wipe out the benefits.


Here is the second question to ask, Mr Fraser. Can Australia, with existing wage fixing tribunals, industrial relations arrangements and monopoly price setting across the board (think Coles and Woolies) be competitive enough to restore full employment within a year or two?  If the answer is 'sadly, no', what is the implication for policy?


3. Low productivity and poor competitiveness. If you fix the first two challenges you will be well on the way to fixing the third. But it would be wise to consider what additional policy changes might help improve overall competitiveness directly.  Here is a selection of ideas from a recent review, with the full analysis available here.


* Immediate action needs to be taken to reverse cabotage rules introduced since 2009, and phase out as rapidly as possible the entire cabotage system and its unique work practices regime. This would allow costal shipments of products and raw materials to be transported at internationally competitive rates.


* High efficiency super-critical coal fired power generation must become again the major base for a return to Australia’s power and energy cost advantage. [Nuclear alternatives need consideration, but a mere mention of that would be political, ahem, dynamite.]


* Company tax reform needs to provide for the write-off of new manufacturing equipment to match overseas competitors.


* Government should urgently remove regulatory impediments to management and labour flexibility, to allow work practices and conditions of employment to be tailored to the specific needs of each individual business.


* Policies need to be put in place to raise the overall spend (Government and corporate) on R&D as a percentage of GDP, to global best practice levels. The program would need to ensure that relevant business and administrative skills and experience are available to use any Government support effectively.


*  A task force needs to be constituted to review best practice arrangements in countries which lead the table of performance with innovation and commercialisation. The outcome would be a basis to review and implement policies which would be relevant for Australia.


* A persistently overvalued exchange rate is a form of asset pricing imbalance that involves instability of industry structure and which requires fresh thinking by the Reserve Bank of Australia.


* Priority be given to mergers which favour the formation of a strong group which can compete in international markets rather than having weak fragmented entities. The ACCC brief needs appropriate revision.


This is a powerful list, and the full list contains arguments in support of these suggestions. You might well say 'This list is very challenging, minister', in true Yes Minister style.  There would be cries of outrage from the vested interests that would be disturbed. 


But please consider this point.  If radical reform is needed to restore Australia's economic strength, as I believe, the necessary pain should be spread widely and fairly.  My earlier advice that the government take a temporary (and voluntary) 20 % cut in wages remains. This would certainly get people's attention, and almost certainly indicate a government that is fair dinkum.


Saturday Sanity Break, 17 January 2015
Date: Saturday, January 17, 2015
Author: Henry Thornton

The global economy has been dealt another blow as Switzerland abandons its policy of capping the Swiss Franc, and associated support for the clock and choclate industries. 


Currency capping was initiated in 2011 to protect Swiss industry.  But the cost of keeping the Franc low required massive buying of foreign exchange - mainly US dollars and Euro - financed by printing Swiss Francs to pay for it. When the cap was removed, the Swiss Franc exploded up against the Euro, initially by 40 %, with correction back to a 'mere' 18 %. The reason seems to be that the Euro is expected to depreciate against every other currency when the Eurozone starts 'quantitative easing' (QE) to combate deflation and depression.


The Swiss central bank also cut its 'discount rate' from -0.25 % to -0.75 %, though this is unlikely to deter people seeking protection againt further cuts in the Euro. No need to blink, gentle readers, these bizarre numbers are not typos, just indicative of the fragile, hairtrigger state of international finance, instability that will foster further volatility and policy experimentation.


The AFR has reported 'veiled wrath' of IMF Chief Christine Lagarde, which suggests 'private fury among the European elite'.  Also that the gnomes of Switzerland have set up a 'blockbuster European central Bank meeting next Thursday'. The US Fed, meanwhile has ended its QE as US jobs growth strengthens. US economic recovery means that now market participants are betting on the first increase, from near zero, in the US discount rate.


The Australian dollar was, of course, tossed about in the wake of the global financial chaos. Smart punters now put potential downside for the Aussie dollar at US$0.70, which for some time has been Henry's best guess at a stopping point of Australia's currency weakness. Memo to self: consult the blind seer about whether 60 cents might be the new low.


Of course, we now have a new boss of the Australian Treasury, John Fraser. His brief tenure has included the surprise report of jobs strength in official (ABS) statistics. Also continued failure in the initial attempts of the Abbott government to achieve a convincing budget outlook, with backflips and hints of further backflips to come.  The news from the mining sector is for massive jobs loss, and it is highly unlikely that jobs growth will be anywhere strong enouth to give the government a real chance of its promise - or was that just an 'aspiration' - to create a million new jobs in its first 5 years in office.


Recent chatter among the elderly members of Henry's social circle focusses on whether Mr Abbott's government has any real chance of being re-elected in a bit over 18 month's time. Even the Labor members of friends in their twilight years add the caveat that Bill Shorten does not have what it takes to run the country, and the second most favourite topic is whether it's too late to put hard-earned savings offshore.


Henry's favourite journo, Grace Collier of the Oz, commends the government, and Josh Frydenberg, for its latest really good idea about a new tax. 'It is obvious more taxation is urgently required and the timing of the Assistant Treasurer’s proposal is perfect. This kamikaze government needs to restore its standing in the eyes of the populace. If starting the new year by talking loudly about a new plan to increase the cost of living doesn’t work, then I cannot imagine what will.'


Read on here, and ponder where the Australian dollar will go as the degree of Australia's fiscal deadlock is fully revealed.


Welcome to Country, Mr Fraser.


Cricket'n'tennis'n'stuff


Having triumphed in the long form of the game, Steve Smith's all conquering heros have put away their white gear for their green jammies and taken on the Poms and Indians in a one day (actually, afternoon'n'evening 'tri-series') under George Baily's leadership and with the real captain doing stretches in the grandsstand.  Young Mitch Stark struck again in the first over  and it took an Irishman to make England's score respectable enough to ensure a full evening's fun'n'games under the lights.


Henry will take a rest from cricket in order to be properly fit for the tennis.  Roger Federer is Henry's choice for the men's trophy and Slammin' Sam Stouser for the lady's, on the grounds that she needs to come good on home courts sometime soon.


I am aware that readers, if any, are thinking: 'Stick to your day job, Henry, if you have one'.  In fact, Henry has just had printed and bound 530 pages of historical analysis of the state of  Optimism and Pessimism in the USA and England.  Sources are magazines and books from 1843 and the plan is to turn this literary material into an index that may help explain share prices.  Will report back in a month or so, and then again when the formal statistical analysis is completed.


Image of the week



Courtesy HeraldSun


Old economics-new economics
Date: Monday, January 12, 2015
Author: Henry Thornton

The US economy added  252,000 jobs in December, confirming 2014 as the best year for job creation since 1999. The good news for the US economy's competitiveness is that growth in wages and US government bond yields remained subdued.


The strong job growth reinforces other evidence that the US is outperforming other large hi-income economies. In particular, the Eurozone, is reentering deflation for the first time in more than five years, and the Japanese economy is still struggling.


While investors are betting that the US Federal Reserve will raise interest rates this (Northern) summer, expectations are growing for the European Central Bank to embark on a full-blown programme of bond-buying to stimulate its economy.


The FT reports that the US Fed officials 'are in broad agreement that US interest rates are unlikely to rise until at least April, according to minutes from their policy meeting in December.


'Most people on the 10-strong Federal Open Market Committee agreed with Fed chairwoman Janet Yellen that the move to drop the central bank’s forecast about keeping interest rates low for a “considerable time” should be seen as a signal that it will not raise rates at its January or March meetings.  Read on here.


Most interest rate experts say US cash rates are unlikely to begin to rise until mid 2015.  But this is contested by some old-fashioned types who remain committed to pre-GFC economics.  The old-fashioned types expected excess money to generate goods and services inflation. While the labor and goods markets remained depressed it was possible to rationalise lack of response of goods and services inflation.  Smart old-fashioned types - eg Rupert Murdoch -  could also rationalise excess money raising asset inflation.


The emerging global issue is deflation of goods and service markets, and the recovery in the US economy is hardly strong enough to drag the global economy into the full-employment zone.  Unless and until this happens, global excess money, generated in Japan and the Eurozone, even if no longer by the US Fed, is likely to continue to flood into asset markets. When the Fed begins to raise interest rates global asset inflation may be checked, but while excess money keeps coming, this may be only a temporary check.


The economic textbook are already out-of-date, and 2015 may see wider recognition of this vital point.


Henry's first attempt to write the next generation of text book is available here.


 


Saturday Sanity Break, 10 January 2015
Date: Saturday, January 10, 2015
Author: Henry Thornton

The year has started with a barbaric act of terrorism by Islamists who object to people who are free to make fun of religious ideology. As we write, Australian law enforcement agencies are supposedly keeping tabs on likely would-be perpetrators of another act of terror.  Endless future diligent detective work seems likely to be required to minimise these atrocities, but there is no obvious alternative.


'Why not simply decline to accept any immigrants from the Middle East?' asked a visitor during the holiday break.  No short run relief from such a policy, and it may make things worse as existing people with imagined reasons to attack Australia's multicultural civilisation would presumably be given a fresh reason to feel aggrieved.


If such a draconian approach is not acceptable, surely we need a more rigorous filter for people from places with a generally hostile view of western values. Evaluation of applications for permanent residence or citizenship could be far more thorough, with interviews by pairs of people trained to detect latent hostility to our prevailing culture.


When interviewing job applicants, I have often found revealing the answer to a question like 'Why are you interested in working for XYZ corporation'. People with real expertise should be able to sort out likely trouble makers, especially if records of the interviews are kept and reasons for accepting people who later become terrorists are scrutinised carefully.


A cheaper solution would to be only to accept people from cultures known to be sympathetic to Australia's values, though one hopes even such people should be scrutinised more closely than current practice suggests is the norm.


Readers inclined to respond are invited to contact Henry here.


Economic prospects for 2015.


Martin Wolf of the FT presents the best overview of likely global economic developments this year Henry has read.  As Henry has often advised Australian astrologers, Wolf presents a base case but also major risks. He says global growth in 2015 is 'extremely likely' to be not too far short of 4 %.  Developing countries may grow faster (as they catch up to current high income economies) and developed nations slower than the average, perhaps at 2 % rate.


Risks to this benign scenario are various: financial meltdown in China; messy Eurozone dismemberment; dollar strength creating developed nation economic crisis; geopolitical  shock; and I would add global equity crash as US interest rates rise.


The Australian economy would normally be part of the high income group, but with our reliance on China's growth a crisis there would intensify the pain already being felt by plunging commodity prices.  While our budget problems are (or should be) well known the current state of political hostility and Senate gridlock is unusual.  As Henry has said, only a widened GST at a higher rate will fix the budget, and we must all hope this is achieved by some political alchemy currently hard to imagine.


In the short run, the greatest impediment to 'high income' growth is our cost disequilibrium.  This will be remediated if the Australian dollar keeps sinking and yet wage and price inflation stays low. Remediation would be faster if there were a productivity boost, but political gridlock is likely to be a blocker here too.


Readers are advised to save money, be unaggressive about remuneration claims and make it clear to government that they want the budget problem to be fixed and economic reform to encourage innovation and boost productivity. Passing these views to local members is likely to be effective, especially now when every one from John Howard down are expressing views on how to do better.


Martin Wolf wisely reminds us that economic forecasts exist to make astrology (or, we must add, alchemy) respectable.  Read on here.


Cricket'n'futball'n'tennis'n'stuff


Finally we saw some real form from the Indian cricket team under its young new captain Virat Kohli.  That said, the number of dropped catches during the Indian innings was unusual and Ravi Ashwin's brilliant dismissal of Dave Warner was another sign of growing Indian confidence. Henry will be watching the last day of the fourth test today and expects it to be a real contest.


Why the futball world cup begins at 10 pm on Friday is beyond Henry's ability to understand or explain.  Fine for unemployed couch potatoes, but what about people with jobs that require alertness by 8 AM Saturday? Henry nevertheless sat up last evening and was entranced by the ebbs and flows of a fascinating game in which the Aussies overcame a bad start to beat Kuwait 4-1.


Soon the tennis will be front and centre. A win for little Lleyton Hewitt and/or Slammin' Sam Stouser would bring great joy to the Thornton household, but must be regarded as less likely than a serious geopolitical accident.
 
Image of the week - Courtesy The Oz



Bull market - how long?
Date: Thursday, January 08, 2015
Author: Henry Thornton

The UK stock market is in its 70th month of a bull market, which began in March 2009. There are only two other occasions in history when the market has risen for longer. One is the period leading up to the great crash in 1929 and the other before the bursting of the dotcom bubble in the early 2000s.


The graph puts current performance into perspective.



The article from which this graph is extracted is called 'Ten warning signs of a market crash in 2015'.


Read on here, and ponder.


We would welcome comments, prognostications or even wild guesses, if accompanied by some minimal logical support.


  Contact Henry here.


Work smarter to find work.
Date: Wednesday, January 07, 2015
Author: Henry Thornton

Every offspring of Henry's friends has had trouble finding a regular job in an area trained for at one of Australia's finest universities. The luckiest have found a spot thanks to the intervention of family friends. The most innovative have become unpaid 'interns', and in some cases this leads to paid employment.  The restless will find work in a remote outback town. The rest either take a job stacking shelves at a supermarket or return to university to try another profession. Teaching is currently one of the most popular options in the leafy Eastern suburbs of Melbourne.


We guessed this was a global problem, because if Australia - a 'miracle economy' - is having this trouble, what about less miraculous places? This week's Economist has filled in the story in a leader called: 'The on-demand economy' or 'Workers on tap', with accompanying graphic.


To be sure, the venerable mag's approach is from the view of the entrepreneur, rather that the struggling young would-be worker, but there is an implied message here. This was the theme of a movie, 'Nightcrawler', Henry watched with young Bert during the holiday season.  The chief character in this movie was a bloke who had turned to crime to create work for himself, dangerous and providing only a meagre income.  He happened upon a newsworthy event and when the newshounds arrived the lightbulb went off. He became a newshound, selling stories to any TV station that would pay for them.


Being a man of great entrepreneurial drive, he figures out how to do the newshound job better than any of the regulars.  Partly this involves making the news, his first instance being to move a corpse to create a more dramatic image.  Where this leads I shall not divulge, but the trailer, linked here, offers hints.


As the Economist says: 'Some of the forces behind the on-demand economy have been around for decades. Ever since the 1970s the economy that Henry Ford helped create, with big firms and big trade unions, has withered. Manufacturing jobs have been automated out of existence or outsourced abroad, while big companies have abandoned lifetime employment. Some 53m American workers already work as freelances.


'But two powerful forces are speeding this up and pushing it into ever more parts of the economy. The first is technology. Cheap computing power means a lone thespian with an Apple Mac can create videos that rival those of Hollywood studios. Complex tasks, such as programming a computer or writing a legal brief, can now be divided into their component parts—and subcontracted to specialists around the world. The on-demand economy allows society to tap into its under-used resources: thus Uber gets people to rent their own cars, and InnoCentive lets them rent their spare brain capacity'.


And in conclusion: 'But even if governments adjust their policies to a more individualistic age, the on-demand economy clearly imposes more risk on individuals. People will have to master multiple skills if they are to survive in such a world—and keep those skills up to date. Professional sorts in big service firms will have to take more responsibility for educating themselves. People will also have to learn how to sell themselves, through personal networking and social media or, if they are really ambitious, turning themselves into brands. In a more fluid world, everybody will need to learn how to manage You Inc'.


More information is available here.  If your offspring cannot find a decent job, show him this blog or tell her there is more than one way to create a future. If teaching fails, there is always setting up a baby-sitting business, or walking dogs for a living.


`Banana Republic` and politicising the public service
Date: Monday, January 05, 2015
Author: Henry Thornton

New years bring releases of cabinet papers and this allows former policy warriors relive their glory days.  The only real contemporary relevance is the lessons for the immediate future.  Geoff Kitney provided such an analysis in the weekend AFR and concluded that the economic mistakes of the Hawke-Keating government make 'ominous reading' for Tony Abbott.


Henry's memory goes back to the 'Banana Republic' event of 1986. This was sparked by sharply rising external debt.  After a serious s**tfight, Keating agreed that stern policy action recommendeded by the RBA's economists was required. In the event, the Treasurer persuaded the cabinet to cut government spending to the extent that a serious budget deficit was turned into a surplus. Prime minister Hawke persuaded the ACTU to cop a cut in real wages, accepting less than full compensation for the effects of the plunging dollar.  The falling dollar was possible only because of the earlier deregulation of the market for foreign exchange, the Hawke-Keating government's greatest policy move.


The advice of the Research Department (never 'official' RBA advice) was ultimately accepted by the government after a lot of Keating's global best practice invective focussed on the RBA's Chief Economist. Mr Keating's abuse was dished out at a meeting that included the entire senior Treasury team whose members with one honourable exception kept their head down while the verbal bullets were flying. Why Treasury was not leading that debate is a mystery.  Either Treasury read the economy differently, or they were far better careerists.  But in the crucial meeting alluded to Treasury officials (with that one honourable exception) sat quietly. 'Cigar store indians' Mark Twain would have said.


The next event of significance was the global share price crash of October 1987. Again there was frenzied debate, with Treasury (and several elderly advisors in the RBA's executive committee) arguing that the crash would create a global recession.  Once again the advice from the RBA's chief economist was that there would be no global recession and the risk of overheating was a larger risk than the deep freeze predicted by most journalists and policy advisors.  The RBA's board seemed to accept this advice and the related advice that monetary policy should be tightened. But while this advice was repeated at each meeting of the board, and seemingly accepted, interest rates fell rather than rose.


Geoff Kitney focusses on the major political event of the 1980s, the struggles for the top job between Messrs Hawke and Keating. 'Through 1989, Keating, the Treasury, and the Reserve Bank collectively misjudged the policy response of the boom, applying the monetary brakes too late and keeping interest rates too high for too long'.


By then, I had stood down as the RBA's Chief Economist and shortly after that accepted a job in the private sector. I will admit to have been seriously disillusioned about the dangers of giving fearless advice that the textbooks (and common sense) recommends for public officials. This disillusion was strengthed as those who kept silent during the big debate in 1987, and who were responsible for 'the recession we had to have', were promoted. To my mind, this is a major cause of the politisisation of the Australian public service that thoughtful people regret.


That is the real message of 'the recession we had to have', one that there is little evidence that the current government understands.


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